Frithya’s pale eyes were moist as she stood at the tip of the long wooden jetty that snaked out into the estuary. Earlier in the day the sky had been a vivid blue but now the Wetlands were shrouded in their habitual drizzle and with it a numbing melancholia had settled upon her. She rarely questioned such debilitating bouts any more, preferring just to let them run their course, but her companions had long since abandoned her there, knowing better than to intrude upon her musings at such times. So it was that she stood on the creaking timbers, like a lone sapling leaning into the heightening wind. Her ashen hair, cropped close on one side, hung considerably longer on the other; it now whipped across her face with spiteful abandon, but was met, at best, with indifference. Her attention was elsewhere.
The ornate barge plowed a solitary furrow across the estuary, with scarce a ripple to mark its passing. Its oars were shipped just as its single sail was being raised. Upon that sail the image of a majestic tree sprang into being, its raking branches imbued with billowing life upon the straining canvas.The symbolic splayed leaves with their distinctive red veins marked it as a blood oak from the forest of Dirrid Arborra. Frithya knew this. She knew that the blood oak grew nowhere else. She knew that even in Dirrid Arborra it was rare. She knew it was sacred. And she knew all this because the bole of one such tree had just been deposited upon her home shore by the receding barge.
Relieved of their cargo, the twin hulls of the barge rode high in the water. As Frithya watched they were turning in a graceful arc to port, a course that would deliver them swiftly from the endless blanket of reeds and into the expansive mouth of the Sunga delta. Then it would be northwards, and home.
Frithya’s eyes widened for just an instant. The sail suddenly hung limp from the mast. Her hair lay undisturbed upon her shoulder. All about her was still. But then a knowing smile played across her lips. Rarely was anything straightforward in the Wetlands. She was aware, almost without looking, what it all meant. A casual glance confirmed her suspicions. Distant as yet, but relentless in its approach. The other habitual visitor to the Wetlands. Mist.
Such was the price to pay for languishing at the end of the strait. Often did it amplify the effects of the squalls that raged unchecked across the Outer Seas. And their aftermath. But sometimes, as on this day, tranquility was drawn down its temperamental length and deposited upon the vast reed fields in the guise of a cloying gray blanket.
So now, as the mist rolled irrevocably over the retreating barge, Frithya turned, knowing it was time to make her way back. The curving profile of the jetty lay before her, its worn planks almost confrontational, uneven timbers turning ever more treacherous in the descending gloom. Undeterred, she stepped out as she always did, her dancing feet making a mockery of her slick adversary. She sang to herself as she went, determined to enliven her mood and dispel the despondency threatening to engulf her. I will not allow this gloom to have its way, if only for Rhythred’s sake. First, it will be the Forging. The clans of the Rhymrron will gather from the Wetlands and beyond. And then, we are to be wed. At long last. He is my soulmate and I would be bound to no other.
She laughed. Her mood was indeed lifting as she made her way back. One by one, lanterns were being lit in the workshops around the kilns and their warm glow drew her on. The kilns too beckoned to her. Unusually, the outer five had all been lit. Only the central sixth, the ceremonial kiln, remained dark, its isolation accentuated by the diffuse ring of light thrown up by its encircling companions. She laughed again, thinking once more of Rhythred. They had been brought together at an early age and the Elders had insisted that they marry. The usual story. It was incumbent upon them to unite their respective clans.
And of course, as was her way, she had defied them.
To the left she could make out the lagoon now, beyond the spit of land that separated it from the estuary. She could even see the ethereal temple at its center and the skeletal bamboo quays extending out towards it from the reed infested perimeter. It was upon the narrow spit that the kilns sat, off to her right, concealing the lagoon from all but the most determined of gazes. Before them the open water extended into the advancing mist, punctuated only by a ragged string of sandy islets. Their own reed boats made light of such an approach, but it had proved to be a tortuous passage indeed for a wide barge bearing a heavy cargo.
As the shoreline drew nearer the reeds became taller, obscuring the lagoon and the temple from her view. A figure peered intently at her from their midst. She couldn’t make out its features for it was shrouded in a curious garment: a voluminous hooded cloak, or so she thought. The garment had assumed the shifting shades of the pervading gloom, but she knew its color. It was the color of her eyes.
Strangely, none of this registered with her directly. Not in the moment. It would only be later when it came back to haunt her. For now it was Rhythred’s sullen face that dominated the conscious part of her mind. She was reliving the day she had informed him that marriage was not for her. At least not there and then – there was too much of the world to see. Did I really say that? And that was when she had been drawn to him, as an understanding smile had spread across that sullen face.
The same smile was waiting for her as she finally stepped off the jetty. ‘Indulge yourself, maid, why don’t you? Linger whilst you may in those gentle daydreams before the harsh realities of married life confront you.’ Rhythred held out his hand to steady her.
‘I think it is obvious to whom the daydreams belong,’ she answered, pushing his hand away. ‘I am no maid, as we both know. And is that haircut really supposed to impress me?’
Rhythred drew his hands self-consciously back over the sides of his head, where stubble was all that remained. Unfortunately, this allowed Frithya to slap him, none too gently, over the central braided portion. ‘Is this meant to strike terror into the hearts of your enemies? And do you really think my father is going to hand me over to a complete stranger? Worse, a complete stranger with a terrible haircut?’
‘Ah, but your father has already seen it and by marrying you, my enemies will be no more. That is the point of this wedding, is it not?’
Rhythred quickly bit on his tongue, but it was too late. Already she had skewered him with her otherworldly gaze and had brought to bear the supercilious smile she invariably reserved for occasions such as this. ‘It is not true love that motivates you then, husband to be? You would wed me solely to appease a sordid collection of old men? You would accept my hand solely to honor some trivial alliance between tribes?’
But then the smile was there again and she had relented. She took his arm and they strolled across the shingle to the place where the great tree lay and mingled there with the others who had gathered before it. It was early evening and the incoming mist had leeched all the warmth from the day, but it was of no concern to those who wandered there.
The people of the Wetlands were inveterate traders and bronze was their specialty. It was the pure direct heat of charcoal that sustained their forges and consequently their hearths and their stoves. And it was here that the charcoal was produced, in five great kilns that hugged the shoreline; a perfect stone pentagram protruding from a carpet of driftwood and pebbles, rising like an indulgent whim conjured forth at the behest of some wayward practitioner of the dark arts. In preparation for the days ahead all five were currently ablaze and the foremost two kept the chill at bay on that exposed little crescent on the edge of the lagoon.
There was also however the sixth kiln.
Frithya stood before it now running her hand down the leftmost of two ornate copper doors and the ancient text embossed upon its surface. Almost without thinking she began to recite the lines. Reflected flames and shadows intermingled and their swirling forms played across the words making them almost impossible to decipher. But so many times had she read them, she knew them by heart:
On frozen shore does it shiver in alien light,
Slick and cold,
Ensnared twixt fingers of a fervent hand.
About it towering walls do shimmer whilst shattered ice does groan.
On high does it linger in blind repose,
Sere and parched,
Caught in the glare of a desert sun.
About it rabid winds do blow whilst chequered plazas crumble.
Down below does it skulk in bloated shadow,
Damp and tarnished,
Trapped in the bowels of a lizard’s lair.
About it twisted branches do writhe whilst poisoned waters gather.
From here to beyond does it cleave a silent furrow,
Insubstantial and unfettered,
Though all would clamp it in their craven hold.
About it writhing energies do glisten whilst incipient boundaries fall.
For naught can quell its restless soul.
‘And now, are you any the wiser for having read that for the thousandth time?’ asked Rhythred, putting a comforting arm around her.
‘No,’ answered Frithya, ‘yet more intrigued than ever.’ Her eyes strayed over to the other door but he had anticipated her:
Come hither, for now is the time.
One hundred passes has Iambos made
And strange electrum must once again be forged,
From gold and silver, copper and tin.
But here it is recorded, lest we forget,
So too must a fifth be added.
Under favorable aspect of sun and moon should it be merged,
That white metal, that metal of demons, that metal unnamed.
‘Impressed?’ Rhythred’s eyebrows arched innocently, even though he knew the reply would be scathing.
‘Beloved, am I impressed that you can read? Possibly, in this awkward light. But there again, the lettering is fairly large, so my answer would be no, I am not impressed in the slightest. Now, had you been able to decipher the left side door, then I would indeed have been impressed.’
‘But it is centuries since anyone last uttered that language. Why would I devote years of my life to become familiar with its intricacies?’
Frithya chose not to respond to Rhythred’s gentle baiting. Instead, she guided him back towards the beach to stand before the great tree.
The roots had not been entirely removed, their remnants protruding like gnarled arteries, unceremoniously severed. The branches though had gone entirely, so that shadows danced with uninterrupted glee along the smooth bole. Frithya tentatively ran her hand over the bark. It was cold to the touch. It felt, and looked, more like stone than wood. I wonder what sights you have witnessed in your long life, she mused. Would you have chosen to end life like this, in a far-off place? I wonder, is it an end or is it a beginning? Is your energy reborn during the Forging?
Even as she thought it, something pulsed through her. For just an instant she couldn’t remove her hand from the tree. She couldn’t even cry out. She couldn’t even see.
And then it was over. A gentle energy suffused her. As she turned to Rhythred, the memory of it was already fading.
The day of the Forging had been one of those strange days: it was as if the weather had been preordained; as if the constant rain and mist had been summarily banished to be supplanted by crystal blue skies and a fiercely bright sun. And now, as it drew to a close, as the sun’s glare began to wane, suddenly was pale Iambos visible in the darkening eastern sky. In response, out of the ragged reed fields at the perimeter of the lagoon, a myriad of tiny candle-bearing rafts emerged, floating serenely upon its mirrored surface. Simultaneously, from the heart of the lagoon, a processional convoy of altogether larger vessels set forth.
Frithya tracked the convoy’s progress with an ambivalence that surprised her. So here we find ourselves once more! The people watch from afar whilst the privileged few go about their business. And it will only worsen as night falls. Heresy! She kept these words even from Rhythred, who stood at her side. They were closer than most but still a considerable distance from the convoy’s destination. Her eyes flickered there now, settling upon the central kiln, and again the ire began to build within her. She had been there when the smoke had changed from gray to blue. She had been there when the metal roof had been lowered and sealed, and the upper doors closed. And she had been there for the final act: the lower inner doors had already been closed for many hours but the coming together of the great copper doors and their enigmatic scripts was something she would not have missed.
That had been five days ago. But I am not there now! The thought scraped across her sensibilities like a rusty knife. Oh no, that would be just too much to ask. Everything must be shrouded in secrecy and impenetrable ceremony, witnessed only by damnable priests and their acolytes. She sensed Rhythred turning to her and realized she was gripping his hand tightly. Too tightly. She forced herself to relax and become a mere spectator.
The last of the ceremonial reed boats docked against the stone jetty that led to the kiln area. “Under favorable aspect of sun and moon…” Frithya thought to herself. They had better get a move on. But it was with unhurried precision that the white-robed priests disembarked, formed into a neat file, and made their way to the forge.
Frithya knew that they had with them the disc. She knew that for the first time in a hundred cycles it had been removed from the temple and was drawing ever nearer to its ignominious fate. Or should that be glorious rebirth? Succumb to the teachings, Frithya! Oh, but I am in rebellious mood today.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the procession reached the forge. It was the only high building in the entire community and the crude iron tower at its center was just visible against the early evening sky. The priests disappeared inside, accompanied now by much chanting, which carried across the lagoon in haunting fashion. Frithya could see sparks emanating from the top of the tower and knew that the charcoal had been fired. Even now it would be sucking oxygen from the demon ore, reducing it to but a few grams of ultra-precious molten metal that would be transferred with infinite care to the waiting crucible. Within that crucible it would merge with the molten constituents of the disc. Even as the amalgam cooled it would become the focal point of another procession, this time transporting it to the mold. The mold. Ah, yes. Frithya seethed again. Where was the mold? Oh, that’s right! Only the priests know. Yet another piece of privileged information to be concealed from the common people.
It was dark as the line of torches made its way from the forge to the kilns. It appeared to stop at the very center of that strange collection of structures, before the ceremonial kiln itself. And then the torches were extinguished.
Early next morning saw Frithya in the Finishing Hall. She liked it there. There was an intense arcane energy to the place. Crumpled parchments and obscure books mingled effortlessly with copper pots and pans, measuring jugs, glass bowls, metal bowls, wood bowls, wire strainers, sacks of salt, baking soda and assorted minerals, not to mention the vinegars and the endless shelves of assorted bottles that contained them. But it was through the use of these mundane items that perfection was sought, for in this hall only the finest of bronze artifacts resided: diaphanous jewelry, masks beaten so fine as to mimic almost any expression, and decorative armor to grace even the grandest of courts. This and more. It was here that the most delicate of patinas were applied to those artifacts, that would further set them apart and imbue them with values far in excess of the basic raw materials that had gone into their making; values that few could afford.
In days long since gone most of the Wetlands’ copper had originated in Zora Rak, but as a curtain of uncertainty and decay had fallen over much of Khanju so had the tiny nation turned to the far south and Tarrak Kanga for most of its ore. And along with the ore so had come a steady transfer of knowledge, most particularly in the arts of refinement, and Frithya watched now as one of the main exponents of those arts, Master Yiu, went about his work.
Like his patinas, almost everything about Master Yiu was delicate, and not just because of his advancing years. His demeanor was delicate, his features were delicate and his limbs were delicate. Even the make-up on his pinched face was applied with the utmost delicacy although Frithya suspected such restraint was more an attempt to integrate himself into his immediate environment without altogether abandoning the traditions of his homeland.
Yiu’s hands however were a different matter entirely. Delicate they were most definitely not. Callouses, burns, cuts and bruises abounded on their gnarled terrain, yet their dexterous movements always held Frithya in thrall. Even now she held her breath as those same hands made a series of minor adjustments to a particularly exquisite necklace suspended via copper wires in a simmering brew of Yiu’s own making. She had watched him prepare this concoction over a period of several weeks and was delighted that he had taken her into his confidence. Many of the finishing techniques that she was now privy to were specialized knowledge, their constituents and procedures closely guarded secrets.
Frithya’s thoughts and those of Master Yiu were suddenly interrupted by a tremendous crash out in the courtyard. For one so old, Yiu moved with surprising grace and speed but he was still well behind Frithya as she pushed through the arched door that led to the outer courtyard. Almost immediately a sense of foreboding consumed her but she forced it aside to confront the moment. Yiu’s eldest grandchild, Syn-La, lay writhing on the ground, clutching at her stomach. Behind her, rusting copper sheets lay in disarray. It had been one of Syn-La’s tasks to accelerate their demise; the green verdigris would eventually be scraped off and mixed into many of Yiu’s brews. The bowl containing the fermented grape skins that she used for the task lay at her feet, its contents slowly seeping over the cobbles.
Frithya cradled Syn-La in her arms, stroking her long dark hair. The girl was in agony and fear was at play in her widening eyes. What is happening here? Has she risked a drink from the bowl? Frithya dismissed the thought the instant it entered her head. Certainly she was the wildest of Yiu’s three grandchildren, but she would never have done anything so stupid.
From the corner of her eye she saw that Yiu was scooping water into a cup from the rainwater barrel in the corner of the yard, but even as she assimilated this information Syn-La began to choke. And then she stiffened. No, this cannot be happening. Please, do not let this happen. If there really are any gods looking down upon this damnable world of ours, I beg of you, do not let this happen. But Frithya knew that it had indeed happened. Syn-La was dead. Almost as if he knew, Yiu cried out, his arms stretching out imploringly towards his grandchild. But then he stumbled, and fell. And lay writhing.
Frithya gently lowered Syn-La to the cobbles, but she did not go to Yiu’s aid. She no longer confronted the moment. She knew he was doomed.
Chaos confronted her as she abandoned the quiet confines of the Finishing Hall. How long had she stayed at Syn-La’s side? She had no idea, but some stray mote of sanity in her confused mind told her that it must now be late morning. There again, why was the time of any consequence whatsoever? There were people everywhere. Dead people. She had thoughts only of Rhythred. Then the cramps started.
No-one ran to help her as she fell, but she saw a figure turn and stride deliberately towards her. It was shrouded in a voluminous hooded cloak of shimmering purple. The color of her eyes.
She could only have passed out for a few seconds for when she awoke the figure was kneeling over her. A hand went down to her midriff and such was the pain at that moment she thought she must have been eviscerated. But then the pain was gone, alas only to be replaced by an alarming numbness which now began to spread throughout her body.
The face that looked down at her was benign. It was ageless. And it was decadent. Incomparably, irredeemably decadent. A voice came to her, yet the lips were still. ‘The poisoned waters shall not claim thee just yet, my lady. Deep within their embrace thou shall lie, but immune from their seeping barbs. Only when the Hellion is upon us and the world shudders, only when Iambos has ten more times run her course, only then shall thy fate be apparent.’